'Dear White People'
Brazen, stylish and confrontational, Justin Simien’s directorial debut has quite a bit going for it. The fledgling filmmaker has delivered one of the most intriguing and playful explorations of American racial tensions in quite some time. Even if he can’t quite handle the weight of everything he takes on, it’s at least interesting to watch him try.
‘Dear White People’ takes place on a college campus that Simien uses as a battleground. The title comes from a radio show that Tessa Thompson uses to mock the white appropriation of black culture and the passive aggressive condescending treatment of black people (e.g. “Dear White People, dating a black person to make your parents mad is a form of racism”). The show comes at a tricky time for the school, when the dean is trying to prevent students from choosing their own dormitories in an attempt to break down the current clique and racial divides in the school. Caught in the middle of the storm are a variety of personalities like the Dean’s son (Brandon P. Bell), whose secret love of weed-fueled joke writing must be set aside to keep up appearances for his dad, or Teyonah Parris’ young woman so desperate for fame that she adopts a stereotypical “sista” persona to gain hits for her web series in hopes of landing a Reality TV show, or Kyle Gallner’s white college satire magazine editor who hopes to quash all of the racial tensions on campus by hosting a costume party with a hip-hop theme. Outside them all is Tyler James Williams as a gay budding journalist with a massive afro who has never quite fit into any prescribed social group, but knows what it’s like to be used and abused by all of them.
Simien’s approach to ‘Dear White People’ is to collect together this variety of characters bonded and torn by racial strife, leave them on simmer, and watch as everything explodes. It’s impossible not to think of Spike Lee while watching the movie, but only in the best possible way. There’s an obvious point of comparison to Lee’s ‘School Daze’, but more importantly Simien has a keen knack for fully exploring his characters through all of their contradictions and points of view. Every character in his script might be the embodiment of a certain argument or idea, but Simien is always sure to give full attention and understanding to each and allow them to emerge as fully-formed people brought to life through a series of wonderful performances.
When the tensions build and the bubbles burst, viewers can genuinely understand every side’s point of view. Yet, at the same time, Simien is also very playful in his approach. The film is filled with humor, gearshifts and surprises. The camera is restless and constantly brings visual life to the endless debates on screen. The movie bursts with ideas from a young talent showing off and earning it. However, while Simien has certainly made his mark with ‘Dear White People’, he still has a great deal of growing to do.
The biggest issue with the movie is perhaps unavoidable. As a result of the filmmaker’s attempt to tackle big themes and make big statements, he’s delivered a movie that can’t help but feel didactic. As amusing as the movie is and as strong as the performances are, nothing can change the fact that watching the movie feels more like being lectured about contemporary race relations than exploring a story. Simien’s skill with visual storytelling is also very much a work in progress. His unconventional shooting techniques often feel as confused as they do stylish. To an extent, Simien bit off slightly more than he could chew as a first time filmmaker, but thankfully not enough to sink the movie. ‘Dear White People’ is a film that feels alive every single second, and if some scenes or ideas fall flat, at least they do so out of ambition rather than tediously following clichés. This is an exciting, if flawed, debut by a new filmmaker who should only get better from here.